Thursday, June 23, 2016

Pelican (Brief)

[The title is an acknowledgment that this is one of my shortest blog posts, and has nothing to do with the movie or book “The Pelican Brief.”]

I've written before about how I enjoy watching the large brown pelicans down here cruising on the air currents, watching for fish in the ocean below, and then dive bombing to catch a meal. After they strike the water, they bob back to the surface, tilt their heads backwards, and swallow their fish. Then these large birds flap their wide wings and take off from the water for another dive bombing mission.

Recently, some of the boys told me they saw a pelican nest on L'islet, the isolated peninsula that juts into the ocean between our two beaches, and which can only be accessed by scaling a rocky cliff. I knew I wanted to check out this unusual opportunity, so after school I followed them up the cliff and across the trail to the outer edge of this peninsula.

There was a large nest made from sticks in the upper branches of a tree. I was able to climb up an adjacent tree and get some pictures of the two babies sitting in the middle of the big nest (nearly a yard wide—the picture below shows a view of the nest from the ground). Unlike adult pelicans, their beaks were rather short—I guess it isn't easy to fit a long pelican beak inside an egg.
About a week later, we made another trip up to the nest to see how they were doing. They seemed to be about a foot tall. This time, they weren't sitting in the middle of the nest. They had ventured out to the edge of the sturdy nest. In the picture below, you can see that one is looking directly at me, while the other can be seen in full profile.
I'm headed back to the U.S. for a brief “mid-term” visit, so I will have to check back on these young pelicans when I return. I will be speaking at the Parkersburg-Wood County Library on June 28 at 5:00 PM and at the WVU Mountainlair in Morgantown on June 30 at 6:00 PM. Come out and see me if you are interested!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Student Story

I've been busy with Peace Corps work this month, plus getting stuff in line for my upcoming trip home (I will be speaking at the public library in Parkersburg on June 28 and at the WVU Mountainlair on June 30). While I was substitute teaching just after a recent school field trip, I decided to give students a writing assignment, and as a prize, to let one of them describe our adventure in my blog. Here is the best story written that day by a boy named J'lon. [I added a few clarifying comments in brackets.]

My field trip to Marigot took place on Wednesday, June 8th, 2016. I had a very enjoyable time in Marigot. I went by the Douglas Charles Airport [shown below, just as an airliner was taking off] and to the Central Livestock Farm. I went with my school. We went on Mr. Andrew's coaster [A coaster is what they call a bus, since what we call a van is considered a bus down here].

On our way going up Anse de Mai I saw five boats lined up on the shore and fishermen sat down in the boat. When we passed over the Hampstead bridge, I looked down the river. I saw a man bathing naked in the river. Then I told to those children near me and they started laughing [Obviously, I have no pictures of this funny incident—I just heard the sudden burst of laughter.].

As we arrived at the Douglas Charles Airport, we hopped down the coaster. Miss Thomas told us to form two lines. Then I heard a very big plane that was landing. There were also some very busy construction workers [they are extending the height of the wall that borders the airport, in an effort to keep the river from flooding the airport again]. We walked to the tower. Then we went to a little room under the tower. Then we waited for the chief of security to come speak to us. He told us that there was a flight so we wait for him. Then we need to be very quiet. Then told us we could come now. Then we went up the stairs.

As I turned to my right, I saw clear sight of the planes. They looked very beautiful. There was a man who told us everything that they were doing there. We stayed a very good while watching planes taking off and landing.
Then we went more places. We went to the departure lot and customs. They put our books and pencils and also put Miss O'Brien's bag through the x-ray machine. There was a water bottle and an umbrella inside.
We went on the bus and went up in the village of Marigot by Miss Lin's store [a woman from our village has a store in Marigot]. Then we drove back past the airport.

When we arrived at the Central Livestock Farm, we saw a sign written “Central Livestock Farm this way.” On the sign there were pictures of cows, sheeps, goats, rabbits, pigs, and fowls. Then we drove further more.

The first animal I saw was a very old fat and lazy cow. Then after a very long while in the coaster the worker came to assist us. Then Miss Thomas had us to get down from the coaster and form two lines. My class did not even form their line as yet when some children came running back in, so I asked what happened? They said there were about 25 cows walking down the road.
After the cows passed, then we formed the same two lines. Then we went to see the pigs, then the sheep. There were about 35 brown and black sheep and the man told us their names were “black belly” because from their neck to belly was black. Then we went to see those goats. The goat pens were very neat [as shown above, they were elevated with gaps between the floor slats and holes on the outer wall where the goats could stick their heads out]. Then finally we went to the rabbit cages [shown below]. We could not see the fowls and the rest of the cows. So we went back on the coaster.
On our way back home we stopped in Calibishie to buy ice cream. Mr. Kurtz bought for everyone on the bus. The bus driver asked “did everyone get ice cream?” Everyone said yes so we went straight home.
I wish there will be another field trip like that. That was very great!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Typical School Day

One of my fellow Eastern Caribbean Peace Corps Volunteers on St. Vincent recently published an interesting story on her blog. It was entitled “A Day in the Life of a Peace Corps Volunteer - Typical Work Day.”

As she mentions, every day is different so it is impossible to perfectly describe a typical weekday (weekends are even harder to describe in general terms). Rather than telling about one specific day as she did, I decided to just present a generic version that I think gives a decent representation of my life. Obviously, every day does not follow this pattern, but I perform these activities frequently enough that they can give a sense of a typical day for me. I hope you find it interesting.

I generally wake up as it begins to get light outside (the neighborhood "free range" chickens assist my waking process). The first thing I usually do is stay in bed while checking overnight emails and social media. I switch from whatever I listened to overnight to NPR's “Morning Edition.” Once I'm caught up on messages from overnight, I crawl out of bed.

Several mornings each week require listening for the horn-blowing of the two bread vendors who drive through our village each morning, selling fresh-from-the-bakery baguette style bread from their vehicles. You must be out at the road to buy bread from them (my house sits back a good ways from the road).

I need to walk up to the spring at least once or twice a week to draw fresh water into two five liter jugs, which I then take home and run through my ceramic/charcoal water filter provided by the Peace Corps. The trash dump is also located up the hill near the spring, so I also empty any trash I've accumulated on these walks. These tasks help get me out along the road where I can buy bread.

If I'm inside at 6:30, I switch from “Morning Edition” to Kairi FM for their local news. Then at 6:45, I switch to DBS radio, for more Dominican news. I fix breakfast and my lunch, plus take care of other chores. By 7:30, I'm taking my shower. I dress and leave for school by 8:00. School doesn't start until 9:00, but I like to get there early.

Occasionally, I need to stop by our credit union on the way to school to do some banking. It opens at 8:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (the days when mail is delivered), I will sometimes stop by the village post office on my way home after school to see if I have any mail.

My school days vary widely, and I usually don't know in advance how my day will pan out. I am frequently called upon to serve as a substitute teacher, which I enjoy very much (although the Peace Corps would prefer for me to just focus on literacy). I like teaching more than just literacy—math, science, social studies, health, and art are all subjects that are lots of fun for me. I've always been more of a generalist than a specialist, so I am grateful that I'm not forced to only perform reading activities.

If I am not substituting (or just temporarily covering for a busy teacher), I usually sit in the 2nd/3rd grade classroom helping struggling students (rather than a “pull out” program, I do more “push in” work). That is not to say that I haven't done “pull out” work to focus on literacy skills, it is just that I don't end up doing as much of it as my colleagues in larger schools have done. It isn't technically co-teaching, but I certainly add my “two cents worth” whenever I can to help the teacher. In addition, I handle all the responsibilities related to our library (the view from my library window is shown below). The bottom line is that I am addressing the pressing needs at my small school, doing whatever I can to improve education.

When school ends at 3:30, I work on math with the four girls in our upper grade classrooms. Our “Girls Math Club” gives them some extra practice (plus with girls overwhelmingly outnumbered by boys in our school, they deserve some exclusive time for themselves). Here is a picture from our end-of-the-year session this past week, because next week starts final exams. The ice cream truck just happened to pass by our village as we met (which had never happened before), so I bought them each a cup of ice cream to celebrate. [I had been sitting on the bench with the white board while they were at each corner, giving them three digit numbers that they needed to round off to the nearest tens and nearest hundreds. The numbers at the top are upside down, because those two girls were facing me while we worked.]
It is always after 4:00 before I leave school. Some days I bring my swim trunks and swim shoes and change in the school bathroom, and then head across the road to the beach for an after-school swim in the ocean. Many of the students join me when I go, and we all have a good time. The photo below was taken at one of those swims recently. Notice that the kids recently have been using an old abandoned refrigerator (with the doors removed) as a boat. Also, large pieces of driftwood or pieces of plywood are used as floats. I try to discourage these risky activities, but to no avail.
After the sweat from a hot day in the school has been washed off in the ocean, I generally walk through the village and up the hill to La Soose (the spring that is described in this story). There I take a cold water outdoor shower in my swimsuit to get all the salt off of me. Then, I head part way down the hill, cross the two footbridges over the creeks, and climb the steep sidewalk to finally reach my home.

I change clothes and sit on my porch (with a view of the Atlantic), listening to NPR's “All Things Considered” and catching up on social media and email. I also fix some dinner during this “decompression” time when I finally get home. Sometimes I switch over to DBS at 6:00 to listen to local evening news. Being at home is nice, but I feel it is important not to isolate myself in my cottage for the night (unless there is something important that I must work on), and so after eating I frequently head back down into the village to socialize.

Often I will traipse through the village all the way down to the shoreline to watch for the nightly exodus of bats from our bat cave. Thousands of bats form undulating black strings across the sky as they head out in different directions for their nightly foraging. I find it fascinating!

Usually a few students will follow me down there to watch and play around (sometimes I feel like the Pied Piper when I walk through the village, because of the way the students will run out to follow me wherever I'm going). Lately, the bats have been leaving at about 6:30, but I don't mind if they are late, because a big part of watching the bats for me is really just the “wave therapy” of sitting along the shore, watching the waves roll in while awaiting the exodus. The pelicans are usually making their kamikaze dives into the water as well, providing yet another form of natural entertainment.

After the bats depart, I walk back up the main street through out village, visiting with folks as we pass. Sometimes I will purchase produce or other food items that a few folks sell from their porches. Other times students will ask that I help with homework—there have been several nights spent under one of the street lights where the students can read their textbooks outside.

Sometimes I will stop at my host family's house, where I lived during my first month on this island. Their support is still very important to me, and I learn a lot about Dominica and issues facing our village from my discussions there.

There are some nights, however, when I need to head straight home after school because I have a meeting related to my work with the Village Council. I'm very glad that I have the Village Council as my secondary Peace Corps activity, because I enjoy local government. It has really helped me to better integrate into the community. It gives me something to talk about with villagers.

Once I am finally back in my little cottage for the night, I might end up doing chores, chatting with friends, writing blog posts, working on Peace Corps stuff, or reading the interesting links I've saved while perusing social media. I'm grateful to have both liberal and conservative friends, because I enjoy reading what each side is saying. I don't have a couch, so my internet reading is generally done while reclining in my hammock that runs between the windows in my front room.

Finally, when I start getting tired, I take yet another shower to get rid of the sweat and mosquito repellent before bedtime (I'm fortunate that Dominica doesn't have the water shortages that some islands experience). I turn on the big oscillating fan at the foot of the bed and crawl under the mosquito netting for the night. Another amazing day in paradise with the Peace Corps has ended! It sure beats the typical workdays I used to endure.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Turtle Campout

My weekend began at noon on Friday, when I got permission to take the afternoon off from school. Some of last year's Peace Corps Volunteers were heading to a resort in Rosalie on the southeastern side of the island for a turtle watch. There is a delightful former Peace Corps Volunteer who works there and she invited us to come spend the night. I had never been to this particular area of Dominica, and knew very little about what I was getting into, but I decided to be flexible and spontaneous—and it was worth it!
I hurried home from school when the lunch bell rang, changed into shorts and t-shirt, threw some stuff in a backpack as well as some food and drink in a small soft-sided cooler, and headed to the bus stop. After waiting more than an hour, a bus finally came through which took me to Portsmouth, where I was eventually able to catch another bus headed to Roseau.

As my bus arrived in the capital city, I just happened to be by a window on the right side of the bus, and saw a couple of my Peace Corps counterparts. I yelled at them through the open window so they would wait for me. I wasn't exactly sure how to get from Roseau to Rosalie, so it was fortuitous that I just happened to catch them. Soon, another couple of volunteers joined us, and the five of us boarded a bus together for Rosalie, near where the sixth volunteer lives and works.

Upon arriving at 5:00 PM, we were able to catch the presentation at Rosalie Bay Resort by Simon George of the Nature Enhancement Team (NET Rosalie). Simon is an expert on sea turtles, and carefully explained their story to a crowd of about twenty resort guests and other visitors. It took place in a large gridded area up from the beach. Simon and his team patrol the Rosalie Bay beach, looking for sea turtles who come onto the beach to lay their eggs before returning to the sea. Whenever turtles dig a hole and lay eggs, Simon digs up the eggs and carefully transfers them to a grid square.
We watched as he carefully dug up the remnants of the nest that had hatched the night before, as shown below (his arm is extended all the way underground). Every egg shell was examined and data was recorded, including the number of stillborn turtles. There were even a few “late bloomers” who had not crawled up out of the sand yet. Simon gathered them up in a bucket and took them to the backside of the beach, where the grass stops and the sand starts.
It would be easy for a visitor seeing a turtle hatchling to want to pick them up and carry them into the ocean, rather than watch them struggle through the arduous journey across the sand. However, that journey is important for the young turtle to strengthen their flipper muscles prior to swimming. It may also be important for them to get their “magnetic bearings” because turtles return to the site of their birth to lay their eggs.
It is amazing to watch these little three inch turtles slowly work their way across the footprints and occasional bits of seaweed. Eventually, the upper edge of a white-foamed wave will engulf them, and draw them into the ocean. They will live the rest of their lives in the water, but only about one in a thousand will survive to return and lay eggs. Such is the cycle of life, and why it is so important to protect sea turtles. [Speaking of cycles, check out the tracks below.]
After the presentation ended and the guests left this area of the beach (see another picture below, which shows the former Peace Corps Volunteer who helps Simon), we started getting set up for the night. We stowed our gear in a small hut, and gathered driftwood for a campfire. Soon it was dark, and we were enjoying the conversations around the campfire, with intermittent walks down the beach to look for turtles that might have crawled up on land. Supposedly it takes a couple of hours for them to drag themselves up above the high tide line, choose a spot, dig a hole, lay the eggs, and cover them up, so we didn't need to immediately catch them just as they crawled onto the shore—we just needed at some point during their time ashore to see them (or the unusual tracks they make while dragging themselves through the sand).
As it turned out, no adult turtles arrived on Friday night to lay eggs (it is getting a bit late in the season). However, we were able to see one of the grid sections hatch in the middle of the night. Simon places a fence around the grid section where they are due to hatch, so that they can capture the hatchlings and check them out before releasing them the next day. We could only look at them with red light, so without a flash there was no way to take pictures of this unique event.
One of the best parts about this adventure was the camaraderie with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers (shown above in the morning light). The six of us laughed and shared stories most of the night. The best part was that I had the ocean waves rolling onto the beach to my left, the glowing embers of a small campfire on my right, the distinctive silhouette of palm trees against the night sky further to the right, and a “ceiling” full of stars above my head. We saw high altitude jets, several satellites, and some “shooting stars” as we gazed up at the constellations and the Milky Way. I particularly enjoyed contemplating our place in the immense universe, while lying on my back on nothing but a plywood board. I realized that I was enjoying life on a small, isolated island, on the surface of a planet that is itself a small, isolated island amidst the vastness of space.

We had been encouraged to bring a sheet to sleep on, but I ended up using that old piece of plywood as my bed for the night (thus I didn't need to get the black sand out of my sheet when I got home). I also brought a lightweight pair of long pants to wear overnight, and a long sleeve shirt in an effort to guard against mosquitoes (which proved not to be a problem, probably because of the seabreeze blowing in from the beach). It wasn't the best night of sleeping, but I'm so glad I did it.

We enjoyed watching the sun rise over the ocean the next morning, as shown above. Before we left, Simon joined us with some of the previous night's hatchlings. These were leatherback turtles, who grow as large as six feet long and weigh upwards of a thousand pounds. They end up swimming the oceans as far away as Europe, Canada, and elsewhere.
Simon let each of have one of the hatchlings to set upon the edge of the beach, and follow our particular turtle on its lengthy (especially if you are only three inches long, as estimated above) and difficult journey. I enjoyed seeing my little turtle finally disappear in the surf, as shown below. I can only hope he or she leads a long and healthy life. If it is a female turtle who survives into adulthood, she will someday drag her huge body back onto Rosalie Bay beach to lay eggs where she was born.
Maybe on that night some future Peace Corps Volunteer will be helping out at this beautiful location, and will get to see my turtle return. That would be nice!
We roasted marshmallows at night, but as a joke in the morning I brought out some “S'more” flavored generic Pop-Tarts and heated them up in their foil envelope over the still-warm remnants of our campfire.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Bwa Nef Waterfall Hike

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the long hike our school undertook, known as a “Belle Marche.” Our intended destination was Brandy Falls, but we never quite found the waterfall. However, we still enjoyed ourselves, as described in that story.

There is another waterfall that is ostensibly within walking distance of our village, albeit a long hike in the opposite direction. I orchestrated a “Belle Marche” of my own to go see the Bwa Nef Waterfall, located north of our village.

I told students that I would pay for a bus driver to take us from our village to the trail head about five miles away, thus saving some energy for us. I made rules that only older children could go, that they had to be at the bus stop by 9:00 if they were going, and that they must bring a supply of water and some lunch (I still ended up sharing most of my lunch with them, trying and failing once again to perform the “Jesus feeds the multitudes” trick that I wrote about near the end of this story).

I ended up with nineteen children joining me for this day hike. I sat up front with the driver while they jammed into the back of the van, and soon we arrived at the trail head. Twenty of us hopped out of the van, took the group picture shown above, and then proceeded up the scenic pathway.
The trail follows the course of a river (Americans would call it a creek) up the hill toward the interior of the island. There were numerous places where you had to cross from one side of the creek to the other in order to follow the trail (providing lots of places for kids to splash and get wet feet). You also had to cross over a large fallen tree that had blocked the path. Eventually, we reached our destination. I was bringing up the rear of the group, while some older students were leading the way. The picture below shows some of the faster students walking out of the entrance, as the back end of our group arrived.
It was unlike any waterfall I had ever seen before. Our uphill climb had led us to what Americans in the southwestern United States might call a box canyon, or perhaps a slot canyon. A slim opening, with steep vertical walls on both sides, led to a back wall with the creek cascading down from probably a hundred feet above. The splashing of the water reverberated against the rock walls—soon to be joined by the loud yelling of my 19 students echoing within this deep, narrow canyon. The picture below was my attempt at a vertical panoramic picture, because it was too high to fit everything into one picture frame.
To make things even more interesting, there was a huge boulder that was precariously balanced across the gap of the canyon far above (I had heard about this unusual feature when I was planning our trip). I just hoped that the “sonic powers” of my loud students would not disturb the boulder, causing it to fall from its longstanding perch. There appeared to be a second boulder straddling the gap where the waterfall began, because something seemed dark above where the water started falling. But that was not nearly as concerning as the solitary rock which has hung atop the canyon for countless years.
The students were a bit cautious at first, given the darkness (a deep narrow canyon with a slim opening doesn't let much light in), the black rock walls, the noise, and that looming boulder high above them. Some of them mentioned that it seemed like the sort of place that a secoya would live (secoyas are evil spirits that live in the bush). However, eventually some of them wanted to get in the water and swim to the back wall. [The picture below shows the view looking out from the canyon.]
They had a great time splashing about in the water, and “showering” under the waterfall. Some had never before enjoyed that unique feeling of a waterfall beating down upon you. They were having such a good time (having forgotten about all the scary aspects of this place) that I ended up joining them. The picture below makes me appear very white—I think this is because my camera was trying to overcompensate for the lack of light in this strange but beautiful waterfall.
After we had all had our fun there, we hiked back down the ravine to the main road. Thus began our road hike back to our village, along a roadway with many scenic views (as well as a few wild mango trees, where the kids would stop to gather fallen fruits). The picture below shows a view down the coast towards what became our next destination. It was taken from an overlook that included a picnic table with a roof over it.
The rocky point shown in the picture above is known as Au Tout (pronounced “oh two”). It was one of the sites used in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie that was filmed here.
This view shown above was taken from Au Tout looking up at where we first saw this peninsula jutting out into the ocean. I added a red arrow in the sky—if you look close, you can see the small picnic shelter roof. This also gives you a sense of how far we had walked during just that one segment of our hike.
This rocky peninsula provided lots of fun for the students as we explored all around this area. We watched the powerful waves crash against the rocks, both from higher vantage points (shown above) as well as down near sea level (shown below).
They also enjoyed doing some rock-climbing at Au Tout.
After spending a good deal of time exploring Au Tout, our next stop was the Au Parc swimming area further down the coast (but I didn't get my camera out while I was there). We hiked the hillside there and then swam in the ocean. The government has tried to make this into a water recreation area by creating a rock wall to thwart the strong waves. However, I think it ends up just making a protected area for coconuts, trash, and driftwood to accumulate behind. It is hard for mankind to control Mother Nature! We soon decided that the beach in our village was much better.
Thus, our beach became our final destination. As we neared our village, our original bus driver came upon us and decided to give us a free lift the rest of the way back home. We made it back to the village and finished the day swimming and playing on our own beautiful beach (the picture above of me with some of the students was actually taken at Au Tout—you've already seen plenty of pictures of our beach in this blog). While it is good to get out, get some exercise, and see the countryside (and nearly all of these children had never been to Bwa Nef or Au Tout), it is always great to come back to home, sweet home!